There are two schools of thought in the world of football. One favours skill and control over any other trait, preferring a goal to be scored using the most aesthetically pleasing route possible. For some, this is the way the sport should be played. The player is an artist, the ball his paintbrush and the pitch a canvas. Of this school, Lionel Messi is the headmaster.
The other considers raw physical attributes to be more pleasing. Speed, strength and stamina must combine to create the perfect football hybrid capable of dismantling an opponent through sheer force. This, this is the way the sport should be played. The player is a machine, and his objective is simply to ensure the ball finds its way into the opposing goal by any means necessary – it is a straightforward game, after all. Of this school, Cristiano Ronaldo is the headmaster.
Everyone has their preference. For almost a decade, these two players have set benchmarks that no current player has proved themselves capable of reaching, that few players in the past reached themselves, and that fewer still will reach in future. But there is a new contender for their crown. And Luis Suarez is, as ever, unlikely to go quietly.
Since 2008, Messi and Ronaldo have shared ownership of the FIFA Ballon d’Or. The former has been crowned the world’s best player five times, the latter has won the award three times. On only one occasion since 2007 has any other player breached the top two positions: Andres Iniesta finished runner-up in 2010. Messi’s club teammate Neymar was once considered to be capable of breaking the duopoly, but is the final third of Barcelona’s incredible triumvirate who the Argentinean ought to fear.
“He has so much to offer the team and it is a pleasure to play alongside him,” Messi said of Suarez in January. “He is the best out-and-out forward there is in the game today.” The qualifier of ‘out-and-out forward’ is a common mechanic, allowing us to distinguish between Messi and Ronaldo and ‘the rest’. Such an accolade has been bestowed upon Robert Lewandowski, Sergio Aguero and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in recent years. The Argentinean and the Portuguese cannot be described as merely ‘out-and-out forwards’; they transcend the position of striker. Suarez has joined them atop that exclusive summit.
The Champions League quarter-final first leg encapsulated the striker. Kicking out at Atletico Madrid defender Juanfran could and should have been punished with a first-half red card. A slap directed at Filipe Luis may have been met with a similar punishment. Instead, he would proceed to score two decisive goals, deciding the course of not only the game, but the tie. Wind up your opponent, avoid censure, win the match – the perfect ingredients for a Suarez special.
The Uruguayan concocted such a recipe at Ajax, refined it at Liverpool and perfected it at Barcelona. His improvement on the pitch follows a similar path. Suarez scored 111 goals in 159 games at the Eredivisie’s most successful club after joining from Groningen in 2007. At Liverpool, he scored 82 goals in 133 games. Nearing the conclusion of his second season at the Nou Camp, he has scored 70 goals in 88 games.
It could be suggested that Suarez has only challenged the throne of Messi and Ronaldo this season, but it is easy to forget just how imperious the 29-year-old was in his final campaign at Anfield. With 31 goals and 12 assists in 33 games, he came within a slip of inspiring Liverpool to their first Premier League title almost single-handedly. He was crowned European Golden Shoe winner that season, joint with Ronaldo. Messi scored 46 goals and provided 13 assists across 56 games for club and country in 2013/14; Suarez scored 47 and assisted 15 in 61 games. And it is easier when Xabi Alonso or Neymar are your chief providers, rather than Jordan Henderson.
Since the 2013/14 season, Messi and Ronaldo are the only two players to score more goals than Suarez, and the Real Madrid talisman assisted fewer over 24 more games. That Suarez missed four months of professional football from June 2014 and understandably struggled for form upon his return makes such a record quite astounding. While the many controversies that follow him should never be ignored, nor should his undeniable talent.
This season has been Suarez’s best. He has scored 45 goals in 45 games for Barca, providing 18 assists, more than both Messi and Ronaldo. Only his 49 goals during the 2009/10 campaign at Ajax marked a better return. Barca will play at least nine more games as the Uruguayan looks to set his personal bar ever higher.
In terms of immeasurable impact, Suarez has also improved the performances of those around him; a select few are capable of almost bringing a Premier League winner’s medal to Aly Cissokho’s neck. The 29-year-old is the facilitator of Barcelona’s forward play, the perennial team player who is excelling as an individual in a system built for someone else.
The biggest compliment that can be paid to Suarez is that he was signed as a foil for Messi, an enabler to one of the greatest players the game has ever seen. After starring in the role of lead singer in a small band in Liverpool, the Uruguayan became the supporting act for Lionel’s worldwide tour. Yet Suarez himself has become the main attraction, and the most important – and so often the most decisive – member of a potentially all-conquering Barcelona side.
“Suarez is better than Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, that’s the way I see it,” said Cristian Rodriguez last September. As the striker’s Uruguay teammate, comments of this ilk are to be expected. But such claims can no longer be dismissed. As impressive as the perennial top two on the podium are, Suarez is at their level. As skilful as Messi and Ronaldo are, Suarez is just as tricky. As fast and strong as Messi and Ronaldo are, Suarez is just as imposing for any defender. His finishing is impeccable, his determination admirable, and his work rate infectious. Forgive the rather crude comparison, but he is the continental Jamie Vardy – in more ways than one.
“He’s an assassin in the area, a killer, a striker capable of finishing a move that seems like it has no end product,” said boss Luis Enrique of the £60million signing in February. Suarez studied at both the idealistic school of Messi and the efficient school of Ronaldo, providing the bridge between the two. He is the aesthete’s pragmatist, and he is bloody good.